Smartphone update policies getting longer, which is good for your wallet and the planet

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When it comes to the number of years software support claimed for a given mainstream smartphone, we naturally - and rightly - think of that as a security comfort blanket. In other words, OS security issues discovered during that period will get fixed and we'll be protected, however far we stray from the beaten track in the web browser or whatever malicious content is fired at us while mobile. But there are extra benefits from long support times. By pushing out the need for a new phone*, we can save (quite a lot) money. And, topically in these climate crisis times, we can all help save the environment. 

* For most folk, at least. I do realise that the typical readership of a tech site is likely to move their phones on every year or two. Having said that, whoever inherits your old phone will reap the long term benefits, just as if you yourself had kept it, hopefully. Just as long as a device is in daily use still and not languishing in a drawer or - worse - thrown out into landfill.

Doing your bit for the planet

With the COP26 conference on at the moment and climate change on everyone's mind, it was topical that I'd just reviewed the Fairphone 4, with the company claiming up to six years of software support (and five years of hardware warranty on the side, which is mightily impressive as well). The idea is that rather than just sell, give away or store your Fairphone after, say, three years, when it's a little scratched and battered, you persevere, giving it a new screen or whichever other component is broken, and thus keep it going longer, with full security updates and confidence.

In the process, there's no need for a company to have to make a new smartphone unit from scratch for you, from a variety of raw materials and with significant industrial power, and then ship it across the world and around your country's distribution network. For another few years, at least. While a handful (less than a million) Fairphone users won't make much of a dent in the worldwide carbon footprint saving of lower smartphone production, if more companies had ambitions along the same lines then a few hundred million less phones made would certainly lower that footprint.

But assuming that most companies don't go down the route of modular repairable phones (Fairphone is trying hard to change the industry, but I can't see sealed iPhones, Samsungs, Pixels, etc going away anytime soon), there's another huge way in which we can all help, even if it's behaviour that the large tech companies will absolutely hate.

And that's to keep our phones for longer. Helped to a degree by those same tech companies, in terms of that longer software support. Every year that you carry on using that 'old' smartphone rather than spend the best part of £1000 on a new one, you're doing your bit to reduce the carbon burden of new factories cranking out new devices and polluting the planet. 

Your 'bit' may just be you, but if we all did this then it would have a major positive effect. Not on manufacturer sales figures or profits, admittedly, but on Planet Earth.


Manufacturer support

So, away from Fairphone, how are other major phone companies doing in terms of software support, in terms of number of years of security updates? Note that this support may also include upgrades to the base OS, e.g. from Android 11 to Android 12, or iOS 15 to iOS 16, but I'm mainly thinking of the more important security and bug fix updates. While OS 'upgrades' may be sexy to geeks - shiny new features! - for most people it's about keeping the experience stable and safe. And that means fixing ways that bad guys might be able to attack your phone.

Apple, for its iPhones, famously doesn't quote a specific number of years of updates (though each - in the iPhone world - almost always includes major version updates as well), six to seven years is common. For example, the iPhone 6s was released in September 2015 and it got iOS 15 last month, and will get updates to this through 2021/2022, probably falling away from official support in September 2022. Which would be seven years of full support, currently the best longevity in the smartphone world.

Samsung, the other huge player, doesn't fare quite so well, but is getting better over time. My own Galaxy S9+, bought when it came out in March 2018, received the November 2021 security update last week and in theory should get its last update in February 2022, which would be four years of support. And Samsung has clarified that most of its range will also now get a full four years, even if the budget and mid-rangers only get two updates in their final year.

Google's policy for its Pixel line has also been improving. With the launch of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, Google is now promising 'at least' five years of updates, up from three years for previous models. 

You're probably getting a feel for what's right and appropriate by now. Five years would seem to be the sweet spot, in that after that there's a little bit of a law of diminishing returns in terms of the hardware being so old that it might struggle with current applications and services. So Apple is exceeding this, ditto Fairphone, Google is only now up to the mark with its 2021 phones, and Samsung is doing well, but hopefully will stretch to another year with its upcoming S22 range.

What of other manufacturers?

  • Xiaomi is huge now in most countries (other than the USA) and offers varied support depending on which exact line you're asking about and in which country. From a mere two years up to four for its latest flagships.
  • Motorola's policies are very weak, claiming only two years support for its flagship and less for other models, 'depending on merit'. Which is bizarre - security updates should depend on the vulnerabilities found, non on how many units Motorola shifted in a particular market.
  • Nokia (now run as a brand by HMD) phones are similarly variable according to model, but max out at three years.
  • Oppo, a giant on the world stage even if you haven't heard of them, have been improving in recent years, from a single year to (now) up to four years of updates for its latest phones, thankfully.

And when support runs out?

The big question, of course, is what happens when the security updates run out? Say you had a Google Pixel 3, from Autumn 2018 - you'd still feel pretty confident, wouldn't you? After all, there's no Chinese spyware, no bloatware, and the '3' is scheduled to get 'one last update' after Christmas. After that, in theory, any OS vulnerabilities found in, in this case, Android 12, won't be patched and you could be at risk. 

'Could'. There's no evidence that a phone which has stopped getting OS security updates has ever been hacked or taken over. Partly because most users are actually pretty careful now (in 2021) in where they browse, partly that installing unknown applications from unknown sources is now harder than it used to be, but also because so much of what makes up a modern Android phone (outside China, at least) is handled by Google Play Services, the massive middleware stack, updated through the Play Store, and kept that way for (potentially) years after the phone manufacturer has stopped testing and issuing wholesale firmware updates.

Typically, Google Play Services is kept updated for at least one or two years longer than manufacturers test and push security updates, and support is only dropped when an architecture change in Android OS makes it necessary.

Xperia 5 II

Even when both manufacturer updates and Play Services support have finished, so typically 5 or 6 years after purchase, the OS version used will have been around for so long that all vulnerabilities will have been discovered and patched, and you won't have to worry about issues with newer branches of the OS. So yes, even after this, it'll be fine for you (or more likely another family member or second hand purchaser) to carry on using the smartphone, getting the most out of it.

The takeaway

A little obvious, but the takeaway here is that the longer you can use each phone for, wherever you are in the new phone/second hand/handmedown chain, the better for the planet. Manufacturers won't like that they'll be selling slightly fewer new devices, but then the reduced factory workload will end up benefitting the planet, so don't shed too many tears for them.

And in terms of actions that you can take:

  1. Ask yourself if you really, really, have to have the latest version of your chosen smartphone? Isn't saving money and saving the planet enough to keep you on your current driver for longer?
  2. If you do upgade your phone then make sure the old one goes to good use and will be actively used. 
  3. When a phone gets to 7 or 8 years old and can't function in any reasonable capacity, still don't throw it away - look for a company in your country recycling old tech hardware.

iPhone 12 Pro (Max)